By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Spirit ownership team is doing a fine job overseeing the Atlanta Hawks, according to NBA commissioner David Stern
Stern came to Atlanta Wednesday to see the Atlanta Hawks beat the Indiana Pacers. Before the game, he held a press briefing, gave a host of one-on-one interviews and spoke to local civic and business leaders at a VIP reception before the game.
The message was the same. The Atlanta Hawks are in good shape. They are no longer for sale. And the Atlanta Spirit is dedicated to the team and to Philips Arena..
“There’s no question they have the resources,” Stern said of the Atlanta Spirit. Then he ticked off the reasons — the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers, the resolution of a prolonged and difficult legal fight among the original owners of the Atlanta Spirit, a new NBA revenue-sharing agreement that will mean more money for the Atlanta Hawks; and a good product to sell.
“They have a team that’s pretty darn good,” Stern said. “It could be sold if they were interested in selling it. But without naming names (other teams in the NBA), they are well down my list of current worries.”
The Atlanta Spirit did announce an agreement last year to sell the Atlanta Hawks to Los Angeles businessman Alex Meruelo, but that deal fell through in November after the NBA said he could not meet the financial obligations.
Stern said that “through that journey,” the owners of the Atlanta Hawks “were almost relieved” when the sale was called off.
“They were having seller’s remorse,” Stern said, explaining that the Atlanta Spirit’s economic foundation changed significantly from when the team was first put on the market to when the sale fell through.
Several times, Stern said the Atlanta Hawks are “a pretty intriguing team on the court.”
Stern also said he really liked the design of Philips Arena. “I am surprised more cities haven’t copied it,” he said, adding that having all the suites stacked on one side contribute to the arena’s site lines.
When asked about Bob Williams, who is both president of the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena, Stern gave another vote of confidence.
“He’s a seasoned pro,” Stern said. “He knows how to sell this building. And he knows how to get sponsors to book this building.”
At the VIP reception, Stern took a swipe at the media for the way that it has covered the challenges of the Atlanta Spirit and its aborted sale of the Hawks and the arena.
“On balance, the press has given this ownership team a harder time than they deserve,” Stern said. “I’m getting more questions about ownership than I’m getting about the team. And I think it’s time to get past that.”
Bruce Levinson, one of the Atlanta Spirit owners and serves as co-managing partner of the Atlanta Hawks with fellow owner Michael Gearon, reinforced Stern’s comments — restating that the Hawks are not for sale and that the economic foundation for the team and the arena have changed significantly.
“When all that happened, we had just finished our lawsuit, which was a very long, embarrassing process,” Levinson said. “We had just completed the sale of the Thrashers. I fought very hard to get our share of revenue-sharing. All of those things came together.”
Even if the sale had gone through, Levinson said the Atlanta Spirit would have continued to own 40 percent of the team and the arena. But he seemed pleased that the sale did not go through.
“We have always loved being a part of this,” Levinson said. “When we came on, the team didn’t have a pulse.”
That has changed, and Levinson said the owners will demonstrate their commitment to the Atlanta Hawks and to the city.
“You will see me at every game,” he said, adding that he will yell at officials when they make bad calls. “I really think that time will make it very clear that we are passionate owners and committed owners.”
Plus, the Atlanta Spirit now is planning to reinvest in its properties.
“Over time we are going to make some upgrades to the arena and modernize this great arena,” Levinson said. “We are going to continue to try to bring the best players to the team.”
As Stern had said a few minutes earlier in a brief interview: “I think the owners are committed to making this a model franchise.”